December 11 2023

Team Teaching India’s Identities across State and National Borders

Amy L. Allocco, Elon University
Brian K. Pennington, Maryville College

“India’s Identities,” in Tennessee, North Carolina, and Tamil Nadu

At both of our institutions, Elon University (NC) and Maryville College (TN), three-week travel/study courses led by two faculty members in the January (or winter) term have long served to further the global education and internationalization goals that are major campus priorities.

This past January we inaugurated a new study-abroad course that was not only team-taught, but also drew instructional staff and students from both campuses: “India’s Identities: Religion, Caste & Gender in Contemporary South India.”  When this unique course arrangement was approved after an extensive vetting process, two primary objectives drove our planning: group cohesion and learning outcomes related to the diversity of Indian social structures. We anticipated that our collaborative course could only be successful if the students from both institutions were invested in the partnership and in the formation of positive group dynamics, and if they received excellent preparation for their encounter with contemporary Indian identities.

We began the fall semester with a weekend course retreat at a sprawling rental house nestled in the Great Smoky Mountains in Asheville, North Carolina, roughly halfway between our two institutions. Our goal for the weekend was, again, two-fold: we were interested in building community and foregrounding academic content. Since this was the first time students from the two schools were coming together, and since many of them from the same institution did not know each other well, we began with ice-breakers. We followed these by asking students to work in groups to introduce their home institution to students from the other school before moving into a speed-dating session in which they interviewed each other in pairs and then introduced their partner to the full group. After a leisurely lunch we brought students to a long, conference-style table for a lecture and slideshow covering the course’s three foci: religion, caste, and gender. The two of us delivered this content jointly and integrated a discussion of the preparatory reading assignment, which introduced many of the key terms and concepts that we expanded on in our presentation.

The final session of the day focused on student needs and expectations for our time together in India. We divided the students into groups and asked them to use the butcher paper and markers to list their anxieties about adjusting to India and coping with group travel, ways their colleagues could help them to deal with these, and the key “ingredients” for positive group dynamics. We took notes on the discussion that ensued and subsequently compiled the students’ ideas into a document that would eventually become the "statement of commitment" that we’d all sign onto before embarking on the course.

A group photo in front of Chennai’s iconic Kapaleeswarar Temple. Photo credit: Sophia Spach.

Following this session the students broke into teams to work on cooking individual Indian dishes from recipes we supplied. While we, avid cooks with a great deal of Indian culinary experience, were on hand to assist, our intention was to let students continue to get to know one another on their own terms as they worked on the cooking project together. We left them around a firepit with s’mores that night, and reconvened over breakfast for a slideshow of the sights they would encounter on the walking tour we’d take on their first day in India. We asked them to complete a reflective writing assignment and then to share it with a partner, who would then be paired with them on that first day’s walking tour four months later. In our final session of the weekend we displayed the map of South India and the sites we would learn about and travel to, and offered students ample time to ask their many questions.

We met with our respective groups of students throughout the fall semester, with Amy traveling to Maryville for class meetings and Brian Skyping in to the Elon classes. The rhythm for the preparatory course included weekly reading assignments and a one-page précis, lecture-discussions focusing on course content, and research toward the two short papers students would each write. The site paper focused on a place we would visit in India (e.g., Mammalapuram), while the issue paper dealt with a topic we would encounter (e.g., marriage practices); these forty-six papers were assembled into our course reader, which constituted the students’ daily reading assignments during our travels in India. Students also signed up for leadership roles, such as contributing to our course blog, being a course photographer, and helping with gifts for those who would host us.

Once in India, we continued our emphasis on group cohesion by rotating student roommates each time we changed hotels. Since our focus was on the ways that religion, gender, and caste shape everyday Indian lives, our days were filled with visits to a variety of religious sites, people’s workplaces and homes, market areas, academic institutions, urban neighborhoods, and slow-moving villages. We talked about the places where social stratification is most and least visible, how religious identity shapes dietary practices, and the ways in which gender expectations and roles are shifting in contemporary India. We gathered almost daily for group discussions to process the events of the day and make plans for the next, and students completed regular writing assignments in the field in response to prompts that engaged our activities and their readings. Students learned from guest lecturers—a non-literate cook/cleaning lady, a grandmother studying for her PhD, a working-class father of one, a human rights lawyer, the artisans who carve stone images of the deities—and from each other via the presentations each student made about his/her two paper topics. As instructors, we learned from these guest lecturers, our engaged and curious students, and from one another. Our different training, field contexts, and methodologies meant that we often analyzed and taught material differently, so teaching together in this environment sharpened each of our pedagogies and challenged us to think in new ways.

The Benefits and Challenges of Institutional Collaboration

At both Elon University and Maryville College, the curricular model for international study-abroad courses presumes in-country experience on the part of at least one of the faculty members, but not necessarily academic background. As a married couple with expertise in the religions and cultures of India, we were in a unique position to push our institutions to enhance the academic content of these courses and to raise expectations about rigor in and student learning outcomes for such study-abroad experiences. Brian has extensive research and travel experience in North India, Amy in South India. Brian is trained as a historian, Amy as an ethnographer. We both have considerable experience in study-abroad as both faculty member and student. The established cultures of ambitious internationalization at our institutions encouraged us to approach our respective deans with our proposal: a collaborative study-abroad course that could combine our complementary expertise, pool institutional resources, and position Maryville College and Elon University at the leading edge of study abroad pedagogy. The course, moreover, would be located in the social and geographic spheres that have provided the context for Amy’s study, language training, and research in India for more than fifteen years, and where her network of on-the-ground contacts could help us to keep the course fee affordable for students.

In this course, we aimed to raise the academic standards of three-week courses at our institutions and to set student expectations about the rigor of the course from the very beginning. For the course to meet its objectives, students would have to acknowledge several things: the critical roles their own attitudes and habits would play; the considerable investment of time and energy by the two of us to make the course stand out among similar offerings not only at Maryville and Elon but nationally; and the unique opportunity for immersion that we were offering. Our credibility on these accounts and our ability to get students to work far harder than their peers would require an entire semester’s prior work on cultivating a group ethos and emphasizing academic preparation.

Maryville and Elon students walking down a village road in Kerala, South India. Photo credit: Amy L. Allocco.

These challenges were exacerbated by the distinct cultures and practices at our two institutions. Maryville College students are typically from working-class families from Tennessee and surrounding states. First-generation college students are a significant population. Elon recruits nationally, and its students are generally more broadly exposed to diversity and are well-traveled. Class differences are underscored by the fact that whereas published tuition costs are equivalent, Elon students tend to pay full sticker-price, while Maryville significantly discounts its tuition. Elon’s study-abroad operation is considerably more complex, offering up to thirty courses in the winter term out of an office with a full staff overseen by a dean of global education. Maryville offers, on average, four study abroad courses out of an office with a staff of one or two. At Elon, faculty members are governed by more detailed policies, while Maryville grants its faculty considerable latitude in course design, delivery, and budgeting. Most significantly, where Elon requires a one-credit preparatory course in the fall semester, and students receive a letter grade for four semester hours of academic credit, Maryville students undertake more informal preparation and receive three hours of experiential, nonacademic credit on a pass/fail basis. The distinct cultures of our different institutions thus required almost as much navigation as the Indian cultures to which we wished to introduce our students.

New Insights, New Identities

Student evaluations of the course provide one set of measures, but the anecdotal evidence is at least as compelling an assessment tool for us. Our Facebook group remains active today—students post news articles about India or videos they come across. It is the site of frequent “I miss you all SOOOO MUUUCCCHHH!” kinds of posts, but perhaps most gratifying are the updates that confess a nagging longing to return to India or recurrent thoughts about the places and people the students encountered. Inspired by their three weeks in India, many of them are making plans for additional study abroad. When we are asked today about how the collaborative aspect of the course went, we still joke that the students loved each other a little too much. There have been a couple of visits over the mountains that separate Elon from Maryville and students from the two institutions were reunited this spring at the Southeast region’s AAR meeting.

But it wasn’t all love and harmony. In terms of group cohesion as the necessary precondition for any learning, we have become more keenly aware of some things. Week two is toughest for the students: the exhilaration of first encounters and blossoming friendships fades, the drudgery of travel sets in, the poverty and harassment start to feel unrelenting, and being “on” for presentations, reading, and group interaction every single day tests students’ patience. For us, on the other hand, the first week is the hardest: the set of tasks stretching ahead requires nearly constant negotiations on the phone or in person. At the same time, we have to talk students through the feelings that emerge from the fairly uncompromising, head-on encounter we expect of them while they manage homesickness and jet lag and show up at all hours in our room. And the questions! The endless questions: Where can I buy a sari? Where do the cows go at night? Where is the nearest trash can?

It’s week three, or better yet, the second half of week three, when it all starts to come together. Motivated by the impending close to what they start to recognize is—pardon the inevitable cliché—the experience of a lifetime, students go into processing overdrive. We met in group sessions of two hours each at least twice per day in our last, four-day stint in Chennai, and we had to cut every conversation short. And every one of those discussions was searching, substantive, and revealing. Students deftly contrasted the lives and experiences of Indian women and men of different castes and religions with analytical insight informed by the discipline’s categories but taking shape according to how they now understood the multifarious, paradoxical, and contradictory lived experience of contemporary Indians.

On our last evening in the village, students performed some “American” dance numbers for our hosts. Photo credit: Brian K. Pennington.

Our deans and colleagues will want to know about those evaluations. The students were consistently and exceedingly positive about a set of things we will only mention: the collaboration itself; the expertise and investment of the faculty members and what our backgrounds and efforts gave students access to that they wouldn’t have had otherwise; and their understanding of Indian social structures and diversity. They were, however, reserved or critical about the amount of work the course required. Comparison with other courses at our institutions, in which less reading and writing was assigned, leaving more free time for beaches and bars, was common.

More significant than the expertise of the instructors or the workload, perhaps, were the students’ newfound insights about themselves and their social locations. The best moment of all came the day before we were to leave. Inequality was emerging, unsurprisingly, as a major category of concern. An Elon student remarked on the privilege she once thought she recognized in her life but now understood better and signaled, sincerely and without a hint of defensiveness or embarrassment, that she now saw inequality in the group she might not have seen before. A Maryville student from a tiny Tennessee town raised her hand and replied, matter-of-factly and without a resentful note, that she now recognized herself as an economic minority. In the mirror of India students recognized the Americas and saw their own experiences reflected through the lives of others.

While our collaborative course required far more preparation and negotiation than any comparable single-institution study-abroad course would, we remain convinced that its benefits made the extra effort truly worthwhile. This unique team-teaching situation challenged each of us to think seriously about the craft of teaching abroad and adapting to diverse student populations. It also enabled us to design assignments and activities that would significantly deepen the academic content in this immersive course. Maybe best of all, this collaboration pushed us to “see” issues related to religion, caste, and gender in contemporary India afresh through our co-instructor’s methodologies and perspectives and to make that real-time intellectual conversation available to our students.

Amy L. Allocco’s expertise is in South Asian religions, particularly Hinduism, gender, and ritual. She has carried out extensive ethnographic fieldwork in Tamil-speaking South India, particularly on Hindu women’s religious practices. After earning her PhD from Emory University in 2009, she joined the religious studies department at Elon University, where she also serves as the Teacher-Scholar in Residence for the Global Neighborhood. The recipient of Elon College of Arts and Science’s 2012 Excellence in Teaching Award, Allocco teaches courses on Hindu goddesses, women in Islam, religion and ethnography, and Hindu textual traditions. Her recently published article in the Journal of Feminist Studies in Pennington (left) and Allocco (right)Religion received the second place Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza New Scholar Award. She is at work on her first book, a study of snake goddess worship in contemporary South India and the rituals associated with a negative astrological condition called naga dosham, and is co-editor of the forthcoming Ritual Innovation in South Asian Religions (with Brian K. Pennington).

Brian K. Pennington (PhD Emory University) is professor of religion and chair of the Division of Humanities at Maryville College in Maryville, Tennessee, where he teaches courses on the religious traditions of India and method and theory in the study of religion. He is the author of Was Hinduism Invented? Britons, Indians, and the Colonial Construction of Religion (Oxford University Press, 2005) and editor of Teaching Religion and Violence (Oxford University Press, 2012). He is also co-editor (with Amy L. Allocco), of the forthcoming Ritual Innovation in South Asian Religions. His fourth book in progress, “God’s Fifth Abode: Emergent Religion in the Indian Himalayas,” is a study of religious change in the pilgrimage city of Uttarkashi. Pennington serves on the advisory committee of the Conference on the Study of Religions of India, is a former board member of the Society for Hindu-Christian Studies and the American Academy of Religion, and is past president of the American Academy of Religion Southeast Region.